A Brief History of Ornamental Turning

"Life is short and art long; the crisis fleeting;
experience perilous, and decision difficult."

"The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne
Th'assay so hard, so sharp the conquering."


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Origins of the Lathe

Since we are dealing here with a specialized form of lathe turning, it would be well to give some of the history of the lathe itself. The name, which is a linguistic curiosity, comes from the English lath which was a pole or split strip of wood, and was used as a spring power source for early lathes. In India, for example, a lathe was called a chakra, a wheel, and it is common to other languages than English that the term for lathe has a relationship to a wheel, or circle. The lathe is a tool of rotation and the works generated thereon are always 'solids of rotation'. That is to say that if a cross-section be taken perpendicular to the axis of rotation, this section will always be a true circle.

Turning is the process of shaping an object mounted in a lathe into a rounded form by applying tools against the workpiece as it spins. Plain turning creates objects whose every section is a perfect circle. Ornamental turning, however, works upon the plain-turned shape to apply some form of ornament by means of an externally powered cutting device. The cut surface which results can evidence great complexity of decoration. A variety of types of motion and interaction of workpiece with cutter is possible. The workpiece may be held stationary by an indexing device while an external cutting tool is brought in to make a cut; when indexed and the cuts repeated, this can create a basketwork effect of pattern among many others. Additionally, the work and cutter may move in a synchronized motion maintained by means of gear trains much as in the cutting of screw threads on a machinist's lathe. A rocking motion is also a possible complication of technique when using a specialized ornamental lathe called a rose engine. The embellishment of plain-turned objects with designs can elevate merely utilitarian objects into the realm of the decorative arts.

The lathe, termed "the engine of civilization," unique amongst machine tools in that it is the only machine capable of replicating itself, is also capable of manufacturing all other machine tools. Its history dates back at least 3000 years. There are extant fragments of an Etruscan bowl dating to 700 BC. An illustration of a lathe carved on an Egyptian tomb wall dates to 300 BC. The Egyptians undoubtedly turned the legs of chairs and stools and other long objects. Though they did not leave us with descriptions of their lathes, the Egyptians did describe and picture their potters' wheels and bow drills, both forms of vertical lathes.

The lathe was certainly known in Grecian and Roman times, though no accounts remain of it or the tools employed in turning. Cicero and Pliny refer to the turners or vascularii, and the master Greek sculptor Phidias is assumed to have turned cups before encrusting them with ivory and then carving them with chisel and file. Herodotus is quoting as saying, "But I smile when I see many persons describing the circumference of the earth, who have no sound reason to guide them; they describe the ocean flowing round the earth, which is made circular as if by a lathe." Virgil, as translated by Dryden, describes in the following passage a process whereby wooden bowls were plain-turned and ornament was then hand carved upon them:

Two bowls I have well turned of beechen wood;
Both by divine Alcimedon were made;
To neither of them yet the lip is laid.
The lids are ivy: grapes in clusters lurk
Beneath the carving of this curious work.

A primitive apparatus used in India is likely illustrative of many of these early lathes. The Indian lathe was portable, and set up by the turner at the site where work was needed. Two wooden poles were driven in the ground and the work mounted between them on centers which were simply round nails or spikes driven through the mounting poles. A bar or rod was then lashed with cords to the two poles to serve as a toolrest. In use, the turner sat on the ground and guided the cutting tool edge with his toes while holding the handle with his hands. Motion was imparted to the workpiece by means of a cord wrapped around the workpiece which was pulled by a helper. Cutting could only be done on one-half of the motion, that of the workpiece towards the tool. Early Persian and Arabian lathes work on a similar principle, but are more sophisticated in that they are built into a box and the power is supplied by a bow and string.


The Lathe Through The Middle Ages in European History

The lathe was introduced into England at least by 200BC by the Iron Age Celts. In the West, improvements to the lathe appear to have arisen from a different method of rotating the lathe conditioned by the European habit of selecting the erect posture for most mechanical operations. One end of the driving cord was fastened to a treadle or stirrup, it was then passed around the workpiece and then the other end was fastened overhead to a pole or spring above the lathe. Such a technique greatly increased the power of rotation and left both hands free for controlling the tool. The paucity of written records leaves us little information about the lathe during medieval times, and it is not until the Renaissance that evidence of the use of lathes appears. Gio Paulo Lomazzo described the oval turning of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) in 1590. The following verses accompany an illustration of a turner in the book "Panoplia Omnium," by Hartman Schopper, published at Frankfort-on-the-Main in 1568:

A turner I:--with unremitting skill,
I turn from yellow box, whate'er you will:
Boxes of shapes unnumbered we produce
And who can tell our boxes' varied use;
There may'st thou store, secure from stranger's view,
Thy noble treasures of the brightest hue,
There too the ball is made, which--wondrous sight!
Struck by the wand, rebounds in varied flight,
Here too the top, that warms the schoolboy's force,
And whirls on level ground its well urged course.

The first book dealing specifically with ornamental turning as well as 'plain' turning was published by L'Abbe Charles Plumier in 1701. Joseph Moxon described turnery in his book Mechanick Exercises or the Doctrine of Handy-Works in 1703. Denis Diderot D'Alembert prepared the first encyclopedia from 1751 to 1772, and therein illustrates lathes and the work done on them. The great classic of early turning, however, is Le Manuel du Tourneur published by L. E. Bergeron in 1796. This comprehensive set of two volumes, containing 96 plates, was published for the aristocracy rather than for the artisan. In great detail it illustrates the state of the art at that time. By this era, lathes had developed into very sophisticated machines from their humble origins.


The Invention of the Modern Lathe(ca. 1700)

The modern lathe was not actually invented, but was a product of the refinement of input from many sources. Its evolution was one of gradual improvement. One key element to this development was the introduction of a large flywheel separate from the spindle that could serve to maintain a uniform speed and always allow the lathe to rotate in the same direction so that cutting could be continuous. Moxon, in 1677, describes the advantages of this improvement to powering the lathe:

Besides the commanding heavy Work about, the Wheel rids Work faster
off than the Pole can do; because the springing up of the Pole makes an
intermission in running about of the Work; but with the Wheel the Work
runs always the same way; so that the Tool need never be off it,
unless it be to examine the Work as it is doing.
So with a flywheel to store energy and redistribute it with a uniform motion, and a treadle and crank to allow the turner to stand and pump power to the machine with his legs, the turner had both hands free to manipulate tools.

Another important refinement to the lathe was the introduction of iron bearers for the bed instead of wood. The iron would maintain its alignment and if a carriage be mounted on a bearer of triangular section, it would serve to keep it in a true relation to the lathe axis for its whole length. The accurate bed then served as a platform for the final refinement which was the moveable carriage connected to the spindle by means of a gear train. In the 1780's, the French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson (1709-82) built an industrial lathe with a sliding tool carriage, advanced by a long screw. Then almost simultaneously in 1797, Henry Maudslay (1771-1831) in England and David Wilkinson (1771-1852) in the U.S. improved this lathe by adding a sliding tool carriage geared to the spindle. By this means, the carriage mounted with a cutting tool was able to move in synchronicity with the spindle at a constant speed and the cutting of accurate and repetitive screw threads became possible. This breakthrough heralded the age of mass production and interchangeable parts. With lathes this sophisticated by the end of the 18th century, ornamental turning began to reach a state of high development.


The Refinement of the Ornamental Lathe
by Holtzapffel, et al.

Generally considered in the same breath with the term "ornamental turning" is the family name of Holtzapffel. John Jacob Holtzapffel moved from Alsace to England in about 1785 and opened his engineer's tool business in London in 1793. His first lathe was sold to a Mr. Crisp on June 31st 1795, the outfit costing £ 25-4s-10d. When one considers that today this would be over £ 2000, or $3000US, and that the skilled mechanic of the day earned less than 8d per hour, this lathe represented over 3 months wages. All of Holtzapffel's lathes were numbered, and not all had full ornamental turning apparatus included. By about 1805, after the Holtzapffel firm had reached nearly No. 500 in their numbering scheme, almost all lathes had iron beds instead of the previously used mahogany wood beds. The last lathe sold was Holtz. No 2557, made in 1913/14 and sold in Nov. 1928. No other maker of ornamental lathes matched the productivity of the Holtzapffel family in the field of ornamental lathes.

When John Jacob I died in 1835, about 1600 lathes had been sold by his firm. Not all were fully equipped as ornamental lathes, but with the large number that were, quite an impetus was given to ornamental turning as a leisure occupation in England. The introduction of the cutting frame by Holtzapffel allowed for significantly more complex patterns to be cut as compared to what could be done previously with only the drilling frame. The elder Holtzapffel standardized his screw threads before 1800, his spindle thread being 9.45 threads per inch for example, and the firm maintained this standard throughout all the lathes they manufactured. This standardization was initiated long before any kind of screw standards were established for industry at large.

The son of John Jacob I, Charles, who joined the firm in 1827, began the monumental series of five books that were called Turning and Mechanical Manipulation in 1835. This ambitious effort, comprising over 3000 pages and 1600-odd illustrations, was intended to be a complete survey and overview of all the mechanical arts of the day. It was not until 1884 that Vol. V was published by the son of Charles Holtzapffel, John Jacob II. However, it was not until 1894, with the addition of a revised and enlarged version of Vol. III, that the set was complete. Today, Vol's. IV and V of this series are known as the "Bible of Ornamental Turning" because of their wealth of information about all aspects of the craft of ornamental turning. Charles managed the firm until his death in 1847. He was considered a distinguished engineer, developing and inventing various devices. An obituary notice remarked of him that,

Mr. Holtzapffel probably never put his hand to a machine which he did not improve, and his practice in the construction of machines has been more miscellaneous probably than that of any other mechanist, his workmanship more accurate, and his general mechanical arrangements more refined...He had all the humility of genius without its eccentricities, and his heart habitually overflowed with kindness towarrd everyone around him.

Charles' wife, Amelia, ran the firm until 1853, and in 1867, Charles' son, John Jacob II, became head of the firm until 1896. He died in 1897. A nephew of Charles, George William Budd, became head of the firm in 1896. Few ornamental lathes were made after the turn of the century and the 19th century was known as the zenith of the ornamental turning lathe. Many lathes were sold to the aristocracy of England. The earl of Harborough, for instance, bought nine Holtzapffel lathes between 1812 and 1848. This was certainly not common, but is instructive of the popularity of these machines once one developed an affinity for OT.

The contribution of John Jacob Holtzapffel's work was significant in several respects. As expressed by Walshaw (see Bibliography), "First, he brought the cost of the machine down to a figure which a mere 'gentleman' (or even a prosperous tradesman) could afford, and, second, the design was both elegant and functional." His designs were much improved over the lathes previously made on the continent of Europe. Holtzapffel also was a master of marketing apparatus to his clients over time. Improvements and additions to apparatus increased the capability of his equipment and induced his clients to continue to be his customers. The remarkable set of books by the family were, in effect, an extensive set of owner's manuals for their machines.

In addition to the Holtzapffels, other makers produced ornamental lathes. Among them were the ornamental lathes of John Evans (1843-1919) which were of high quality and counted some improvements over the Holtzapffel lathes to their advantage. A large number of lathes were attributed to his firm, and improved overhead drives, sliderests and cutting frames marked the work of this talented machinist. He also wrote a book on ornamental turning which some find much more easily understandable than the Holtzapffel books. George Birch and Company made a few ornamental lathes, but they were essentially engineers' metalworking tools which were given the necessary components to do ornamental turning. George Goyen, a retired South American railway engineer who took to making lathes as a hobby, is generally credited with singlehandedly creating the finest ornamental lathes ever produced. He probably made his lathes for his friends' amateur use and only ten Goyen lathes are known to exist. There were other makers such as George Plant, George Hines, Hulot, James Munro, Joseph Fenn and James Lukin and many of them made lathes of a caliber of workmanship equal to a Holtzapffel. Lukin also wrote a book (see Bibliography) on ornamental turning and Frank Knox considered it "second only to Holtzapffel in usefulness," as "Lukin clarifies much of what Holtzapffel leaves unclear." There were indeed other toolmakers who made ornamental lathes, but these makers are those who have left us with extant examples of their machines.

A typical example of an array of ornamental cutters is seen in Evans' book. This was an assortment of cutters that would be in a basic collection from any of the ornamental lathe makers. Cutters such as these were mounted in the universal cutting frame, the horizontal cutting frame or the vertical cutting frame and could produce a great variety of pattern, especially if the cuts from several cutters were combined in the design of the pattern.

Many specialized chucks and apparatus comprised a complete ornamental turning lathe package.Typical of the presentation of apparatus for a Holtzapffel OT lathe is this array of gears and accessories for the spiral and reciprocator apparatus. They are housed in a finely-crafted mahogany box, and are beautiful to look at and in use. A drill frame was necessary to do work in which the cutter rotated as a modern router bit would. Pearls and other features could be created depending upon the profile of the cutter. An eccentric cutting frame allowed for shallow circles to be cut with adjustments to vary the diameter of the circle cut and its displacement from the central axis of the piece. With careful thought and design, very intricate patterns of a geometric nature could be rendered by this technique.

Other apparatus included a variety of special-purpose chucks, such as the eccentric and rectilinear chucks. It was also possible to create ellipses and, by means of a compensating index, create equal divisions of the ellipse. A geometric chuck comprised of a complex set of interacting gears would allow tracings to be made that would demonstrate complex geometric curves, such as the epicycloidal pattern. Much ornamental turning was done in ivory, as it produced the finest cuts and allowed for great delicacy of pattern due to its hardness and strength. At times, incredibly intricate work was performed by the Holtzapffel firm to illustrate to the public the capabilities of their machines.

A beautiful example of the finest work put out by the Holtzapffel is in this Rose Engine Lathe, one of only 8 ever made. These were a specialized type of ornamental lathe in which the headstock rocked back and forth as controlled by a rubber moving against a rosette or cam-like pattern mounted on the spindle at the same time as the lathe spindle rotated. Rose engine work often reveals flower patterns, and convoluted, symmetrical, multi-lobed organic patterns. It has the potential to be very complex and to produce beautiful and unique patterns unlike any other on the ornamental lathe.

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Excellent engraved plates of ornamental turning and an extensive depiction of various OT apparatus can be found in Holtzapffel Vol. V (see Bibliography). Much of the historic ornamental turning machinery that has survived is now held by collectors or is in museums. Only a small number of machines are still being used for their intended purpose. Most of this machinery bespeaks an era of unbounded optimism and is beautifully made and a joy to view and use. They represent a time in history when quality still meant "excellence." To my view, the makers and users of this machinery were obviously on a quest to participate in the experience of beauty and "a thing done well," and from our own perspective in time, succeeded admirably.


Some Ornamental Turners of the Past

Tsar Peter the Great of Russia ordered both a Russian and Dutch translation of Plumier's work in 1716. He was very interested in utilizing the mechanical arts to Westernize his country and was an accomplished ornamental turner. Boxes and a pair of compasses in an ivory box made by him are in the Brandenberg Museum in Copenhagen today. Boxes made by the Prussian kings, Frederick III and Frederick IV, are also at this museum.

Andrei Konstantinovich Nartov, a member of Peter the Great's court wrote a treatise called "Theatrum Machinarum" (see Bibliography) which was never published, but nevertheless was preserved in manuscript form and translated in 1966 by the Israel Program for Scientific Translations in Jerusalem. Nartov was a mechanic and state counselor to Peter and a member of the Imperial Academy of Sciences. He was sent by Peter in 1718 to instruct Frederick William I, king of Prussia, in the art of ornamental turnery. As Frank Knox recounts, "Another of Nartov's lathes, made in Moscow and brought to Paris, was presented to Louis XV with a collection of turned objects that were placed in the Louvre and are still kept, together with the lathe, in the Musé e du Conservatoire National des Arts et Metié rs." Nartov was apparently a master of the craft and produced complicated shapes with delicate workmanship. Another of his lathes was presented by the Czar Nicholas I to the Austrian emperor Ferdinand,and it is now located in the Technical Museum of Vienna.

The Zick family, who lived in Nuremberg in the 16th and 17th centuries, produced many of the exotic and seemingly impossible pieces seen in museums today. Other European members of royalty were ornamental turners and some of their work survives today. The Copenhagen Museum has in its collections objects made by Christian V and Frederick IV, Kings of Denmark. Both the kings, Louis XV and XVI of France, were ornamental turners and collectors. A daughter of George II of England, Princess Louise, produced a complex pyramid. At Augsburg are the pieces of Tabien Treffler, who also taught ornamental turnery to German royalty.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, a goodly number of ornamental lathes were made in Europe and found their way into the hands of many houses of European royalty, where both men and women practiced the craft as a hobby. In this age of fascination with mechanical devices, some very elaborate ornamental turning was created and some still survives in the museums of Europe.


A Modern Ornamental Lathe

In a 1976 issue of Fine Woodworking (see Bibliography) magazine, Ray Lawler first read of a machine and a craft he had never encountered before. He found the article about Frank Knox (see Bibliography), his Holtzapffel lathe, and the exquisite ornamental turnings he produced fascinating. Being the owner of a custom gear-making shop, Ray had the facilities and the interest to attempt to make a modern version of a Holtzapffel ornamental turning lathe. He got in touch with Frank Knox and found out about the five books the Holtzapffels had written on the lathe and turning techniques. Though the books contained very good and clear drawings of lathes and apparatus, not one dimension was mentioned. So Lawler went to New York and spent two days with Mr. Knox with a camera and micrometer, taking measurements and pictures of the Holtzapffel lathe owned by Mr. Knox. As a result, in 1985, Ray and his dad, Calvin, created a prototype lathe.

As expressed by V. E. Gilmore in a 1989 Popular Science (see Bibliography) article, speaking of the Lawler lathe, "It is a beautiful machine, made of polished steel, cast bronze, and mounted on mahogany legs....(it) embodies several design changes. Of course it is motorized rather than having a treadle as the old ones originally did. It is also larger; it can hold work up to 36 inches long (compared with about 22 inches for a Holtzapffel lathe)."

Lawler made his lead screw run the length of the lathe, rather than the 8" of the original Holtz, to allow for the continuous working of longer pieces of wood. This change caused a problem with the overhead drive that powers the cutters since there is greater movement longitudinally than with a Holtzapffel lathe. His solution as described by Gilmore was "to add a vertical upright to the back of the slide rest, which moves in tandem with the tool holder. The pulley on the horizontal crossbar atop the upright thus can be always above the cutter. A counterweight on the main upright keeps the belt in proper tension." This example is but one of many elegant solutions to making a workable machine with modern technology. Another Lawler innovation was to mount the tool carriage on linear bearings which give a silky, smooth motion to the carriage as it moves along the lathe bed.

With such refinements as mentioned above, the Lawlers have now produced and sold 36 lathes (as of spring '96). There is not a great demand for such exotic machinery, and the effort has not been profitable for the Lawlers, and they have ceased production or support of their OT lathes.

Another maker of modern ornamental wood turning lathes is Paul Cler. He has made about 10 lathes, and they have rose engine capabilities as well as spiral, reciprocator and indexed work capabilities. His lathes are smaller than the Lawler and considerably less expensive. They have been quite well received by the OT community and there is a wait list for his latest production. They incorporate many ingenious methods of accomplishing OT tasks and Paul is quite an original thinker with a profound mechanical aptitude. Another consummate machinist is Fred Armbruster. Fred has made two immaculate rose engine lathes styled after the finest Holtzapffel model. Fred also makes beautifully designed and crafted cutting frames and other ornamental turning apparatus. These modern ornamental turning lathes and apparatus have contributed considerably to the renewed interest shown in this archaic craft.


The State of the Craft

Ornamental turning reached its previous crest of interest immediately preceding World War I. The disruption of European society wrought by the war spelled a demise of interest in OT. Not only was the aristocracy of Europe greatly reduced, but machinist's work on electrically powered tools became the popular hobby of the mechanically inclined.

In 1948, however, a dedicated group of amateurs formed the Society of Ornamental Turners in England. This group served as a focus for a renewed interest in the tools and techniques of ornamental turning. Public awareness was aroused by their Bulletin and meetings and competitions. In the US, a magazine article in 1976 first brought awareness of ornamental turning to a broader audience. Then the reprints of Holtzapffel's books and later those of Evans and Lukin gave a resource of historical information to those interested. Likely the most impact on US awareness of ornamental turning was brought by the publication of the beautiful little book by Frank Knox in 1986. Even though the book was short, his beautiful designs and workmanship depicted by excellent color photographs and information about the history and techniques of OT served as a valuable modern introduction to the craft. In 1990, an excellent book on OT published in England by TD Walshaw served to provide further information to those intrigued by this craft. The Bibliography contains information about all these written works and more dealing with ornamental turning.

Today, the Society of Ornamental Turners numbers over 300 members worldwide. The American Association of Woodturners, with a membership exceeding 5000, has as a local chapter the Ornamental Turners of America. They hold yearly conferences which have a section dedicated to ornamental turning. In 1995 The Ornamental Turners International was organized to serve as a focus for ornamental turning in the US. It holds an annual meeting, and is making provisions for the reprinting of rare, out-of-print books on OT, the group purchase of OT equipment and materials, and a means of networking by sharing a newsletter. (See the Bibliography, Other Sources of Information, for further information about these groups.)

There are excellent displays of ornamental turning equipment at the British Science Museum in London. At the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester N.Y., site of a 1992 Ornamental Turning Seminar, there has been an organized program of instruction in ornamental turning with the tools and equipment donated by Frank Knox's estate. The HaWK computerized ornamental turning lathe created by Mark Krick and associates utilizes the latest electronic technology in their experiments with computer-controlled OT.

Around the world, a group of talented amateurs and professionals carry on the traditions of ornamental turning, infusing new materials, techniques and designs into the craft. Work such as mine, I think, demonstrates that you do not have to have an ornamental turning lathe to produce respectable ornamental turning. Excellent ornamental turning can be performed on machinery adapted to the purpose. Such talented professionals as Paul Fletcher (see Bibliography, "Craft Crusader") in England and Jon Sauer (see Bibliography) and Dale Chase in California have gained international reputations in the art world for their work. Exhibitions held by major galleries such as the Del Mano Gallery in Los Angeles now include work by ornamental turners. With the reprinting by modern publishers of some of the classic works of ornamental turning, with the encouragement of several organizations formed to foster the craft, with the introduction of a modern ornamental turning lathe, and with the ingenuity and creativity of resourceful individuals to create their own apparatus, this venerable craft has gained the momentum and interest to propel it, alive and well, into a new century to assume its rightful place in the field of the decorative arts.